by Gary Stix
A beverage station in an office in Newcastle, England, requires workers to pay for coffee, tea, and milk on the honor system. Money is supposed to go into a box - 30 pence for tea, 50 for coffee, 10 for milk. No hovering clerk stands nearby.
Researcher Melissa Bateson decided to turn this dispensing area into the central prop for a social-science experiment. She tracked how much milk was dispensed each week over a 10-week period and how much cash was collected. During odd-numbered weeks, the box received on average nearly three times as much as it did on even weeks for each liter of milk consumed.
What gave? On the odd weeks, Bateson affixed a pair of watchful eyes to the sheet of paper that listed prices. On even weeks, the eyes were replaced with a picture of flowers. When quizzed, none of the office workers remembered the images. But the simple presence of an iconic gaze seems to have made a big difference in how they behaved.
That we think and act under imperceptible influences - and that these forces are often the source of bias and error - inspired Washington Post (and former Inquirer) reporter Shankar Vedantam to write The Hidden Brain. Vedantam, a natural storyteller, moves seamlessly from banal office ritual to the roots of racial prejudice, to group behavior in the south tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, and then on to a deconstruction of the mass psychology of the followers of Jim Jones.
The Hidden Brain is built around a collection of anecdotes that bolster the thesis that sub-rosa mental sprockets and chains, often programmed to work against our conscious intentions, underlie much of what we do, either as individuals or when massed into groups.
There is Will DeRiso, an employee of the securities firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, who gets swept along in the panicked dash down the stairs after the plane hits the other Trade Center skyscraper, only to pause midway and deliberate about whether he should go back to fetch remaining coworkers on the 89th floor who dismissed the gravity of their situation. (They later perished.) DeRiso remains at the center of a "complex web of interconnections, with thousands of cables tugging him in different directions."
Terrorists, in this account, are not wildly deranged, but rather dupes who get sucked into "The Tunnel": a psychological vortex in which a small, cloistered group warps the thinking of an otherwise ordinary individual. Larry Layton, an idealistic but impressionable Quaker, became a member of Jim Jones' People's Temple and readily accepted a mission to kill U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, who came to Guyana to investigate the cult.
Like the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, Vedantam serves as a popularizer of the social sciences. Both authors attempt to overturn bedrock assumptions about our everyday world. Gladwell recently chronicled for his employer how an entrepreneurial cowboy such as Ted Turner was really nothing of the kind, but rather survived by wagering relatively inconsequential stakes on surefire ventures. Turner put no cash down for his purchase of the UHF station that became an initial building block of his broadcast empire.
The success of this type of writing depends on an ability to surprise. Vedantam's premise that our unseen, inner incubuses lead us in unexpected directions is less sure-footed than many of Gladwell's revelations. The notion that our actions derive from a subterranean irrationality is not really news. Freud, Shakespeare, and the ancients based whole careers on this sort of thing.
Vedantam acknowledges as much but plows on because of his assertion that scientists can now provide better insight into why we go astray. Oddly, he steers clear of many seminal findings in neuroscience and cognitive psychology that have made palpable the idea of unconscious forces that control our actions.
Recent studies of the brain's so-called "default mode" describe behind-the-scenes mental activity that prepares us to confront future events. Since the 1980s, scientists have known that unconscious brain activity precedes awareness of a conscious decision to initiate a muscle movement - a challenge to the concept of free will. And the housing bubble that precipitated the recent financial crisis was the best evidence yet for the validity of the heuristics and biases documented by behavioral economists, providing elaborate explication for why we so easily succumb to the madness of crowds.
Perhaps Vedantam avoids this territory because some of it has been well chronicled in other popular books. But doing so misleads because the research he does cite is not embedded in an essential intellectual framework. Ultimately, the findings he ignores have had more influence on our understanding of human behavior than studies on office honor systems.
The Hidden Brain remains an absorbing journey into the ways mass psychology
and inner bias undermine our conceit of autonomy and rational initiative.
But Vedantam's coinage of hidden brain as a term that encompasses a revolution
akin to the advent of quantum mechanics reaches beyond the evidence furnished
here. The subliminal self has always remained central to the endeavors
of philosophers and, more recently, brain scientists.
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